Around 2005, as I was close to finishing what would be the third draft of The Veiled Mirror, I began to research the next novel. The Veiled Mirror wasn’t quite done yet, though. I did another rewrite in 2007 as I used it for my master’s thesis at Harvard Extension School. After graduating, I began sending out query letters and did another revision based on the feedback I was getting. I was finally ready to release it to the world in 2010, but in those five years, I spent a lot of time wondering why I couldn’t get focused on the second novel.
Part of the issue is that I love doing research. A long list of ideas for historical fiction is stationed by my desk, and each novel focuses on a very different place and time. I started researching medieval Ireland. Then 1800s Tunisia and Algeria. Then medieval Baghdad during the dynasty of Harun Al-Rashid. Then ancient Sumeria. I’ve always adored studying history. Widener Library is one of my favorite places, and I have found countless materials there, both on the shelf on through their online resources to help in my research. But months went by. Then years. I began to call it the 50 page curse. I started four novels and stopped 50 pages into each one. I worried about wasting time.
Finally, a couple of years ago, I became more focused after joining a writer’s group. I paraded all of my incomplete beginnings to them, and one stood out among the rest. I’ve dedicated myself to it ever since, with the exception of two free short stories I wrote to use to promote my work. As I look toward publishing the second novel later this year, I’ve been in the process of selecting the third novel. How much more research do I need to do? A key question. The answer: very little. I wasn’t doing what I had hoped at the time, but looking back, I created detailed, very organized notes. I’ve done so much research since 2005 that I have several novels lined up and ready to write. It was never wasted time. It was quite fruitful, as a matter of fact. It just took me years to realize it.
If you ever find yourself in a position where you’re questioning yourself as a writer, never despair. Your time and efforts may not be structured as you hope, but the most important thing is to keep working at it. There’s something to learn at every moment of the process, whether it’s planning, research, or writing what you know needs major revisions. The more I study the greats of literature, the more this becomes a truth and not something I just say to make myself feel better. Reading memoirs of Hemingway has been a profound experience for me because I learned about his insecurities, the way he thought about the craft of writing, and what he saw in other writers. As he says in Moveable Feast: “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”